Like many in the IT industry, I’ve been waiting for
Microsoft to launch a compelling tablet offering to compete with Apple and
Google. Microsoft is, after all, the company that introduced a feature-rich
tablet back in 2001, unveiling the Tablet PC platform that remained a niche
product until the iPad put the term “tablet” into the common vernacular.

Third time is the

Since the introduction of the iPad, Microsoft and its
hardware partners have attempted to steal some of the iPad’s thunder, initially
releasing expensive models with poor battery life that ran full-fledged Windows
7. After flirting with Windows RT, the current crop of Microsoft tablets now
offers full Windows 8.1, in a package that competes with Apple and Google in
terms of price, size, and even battery capacity. This breed of tablets is well represented
by Dell’s awkwardly-named Venue 8 Pro.

I’ve spent the last three weeks with the Venue 8 Pro, and I should be squarely inside the targeted demographic for the device. As a consultant, I travel
heavily use my tablet like a stereotypical “knowledge worker,” triaging
email and jockeying spreadsheets and presentations while on the move. While my
travel schedule may be excessive, once on the ground, I move frequently between
meetings and offices, which is more typical in these types of roles.

Dressed for business

Thankfully, Dell and others have abandoned attempts to “out
Apple” Apple and make poor clones of the iPad. The Venue 8 Pro is business-like
black, with a nice rubberized back to the device, which makes it easy for
someone with large hands (my grandfather always referred to mine as “meat hooks”)
able to hold the device one-handed. The prospect of an 8-inch “mini tablet” is worth considering
if you’re in the market. I find the smaller format easier to grab and hold for a meeting, making the device more likely to travel with me throughout
the day. In a pinch, it will even fit in a large pants pocket, at the obvious
trade-off of less screen real estate. Despite the smaller size and lower price,
nothing about the tablet’s physical characteristics feels cheap or poorly

The large glass front of the Venue 8 Pro doesn’t have a physical
button. This looks nice, but even after three weeks, I still find myself
looking for the common “home” button below the screen, which Dell has moved to
the upper right corner of the device. In addition to the home button, power
and volume buttons adorn the right side of the device, leaving only a micro USB
port and micro SD card slot to complete the ports.

There’s no standard USB port or mini-HDMI, so the micro
SD card and micro USB are the only connectivity options. Fortunately, the former
will accept an adapter that allows for a full-size USB device to be connected
to the tablet. In practice, I thought I’d use the USB port on my Surface RT
rather frequently, but aside from testing that it actually worked, I rarely
plug anything into my tablets or miss a full-size USB port.

performance, and some problems

The Venue 8 Pro is powered by Intel’s latest “Bay Trail” series
of Atom processors. I’ve never taken umbrage at the lowly Atom processor and
won’t bore you with references to Netbooks of yore, other than to say that if
you’re worried about the latest Atom’s capabilities, don’t be. While I’ll
discuss more about software performance in my next article, rest
assured that the processor flies though common business tasks and puts the
Surface RT (and even my Core i7 desktop) to shame on opening and closing modern
and standard applications. You’re not going to edit 4K HD videos on this
device, but you’re also not going to want for power when performing common computing

After an initial overview of the hardware, I believe Dell has finally nailed the mini tablet for “regular” Windows, but there are a
few small misses. Some aspects of the hardware and related drivers don’t appear
to be working well at this time. For example, activating airplane mode effectively disables the
Wi-Fi on my device until I do a reboot, and I’ve been unable to connect to a few
public and hotel wireless networks, where an “I agree to terms and conditions”
page that loads on all my other devices won’t load on the Venue 8 Pro. Hopefully, this issue will be solved with a software update.

Additionally, the device seems to have some struggles with
power and charging. Windows devices in general seem to struggle to sleep
efficiently, with a Windows laptop or tablet that has a 90% full battery
showing 40% when awakened five or six days later, and the Venue 8 Pro exhibits
this same activity. Charging also seems finicky. I was excited that the device
charges through a standard micro USB cord, allowing me to eliminate one more
proprietary adapter from my briefcase. However, when using a variety of
non-Dell, but otherwise standard USB chargers, in some cases the battery will
not fully charge in a 24-hour period. My preferred travel charger, which will
simultaneously charge two USB devices, emits an annoying high-pitched whine
when charging the Venue 8 Pro, the only device (out of a dozen) that causes
this noise.

Despite these minor shortcomings, the screen, all-day
battery, and easy-to-transport size have my Venue 8 Pro joining me for more
meetings and late-night reading sessions than my trusted iPad 2. In my next article, I’ll discuss the software capabilities of the Venue 8 Pro and, assuming Dell ships the companion stylus I’ve ordered, whether the device
achieves my “Holy Grail” of digital notepads. 

Do you think Microsoft finally nailed it with the Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet? Share your opinion in the discussion thread below.